Ishaan Tharoor (WP), September 26, 2023
An entire community may be on the verge of abandoning its ancestral homeland. After months of blockade by Azerbaijan, thousands of ethnic Armenians motored out of their highland enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh toward sanctuary in Armenia. They were leaving behind towns and villages that have sat for years within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory, but which had maintained de facto autonomy in the form of the unrecognized republic of Artsakh, a medieval Armenian name for the contested region.
But what existed for centuries may be about to vanish in days. Last week, a lightning-fast Azerbaijani campaignoverwhelmed armed separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and compelled Artsakh’s authorities to agree to disband their territorial defense forces and enter into negotiations about terms of a de facto surrender. The advances marked the biggest escalation in the conflict since a brief war in 2020 saw the superior Azerbaijani military take back major swaths of land, which had been seized by Armenian forces in earlier rounds of fighting in the 1990s. Now, the autocratic government in Baku may for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union be able to extend full control over the majority-Armenian enclave.
That shifting reality sparked an exodus. The victorious Azerbaijanis agreed to open up the lone corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, precipitating a huge flow of refugees fleeing the enclave and a potential future of Azerbaijani rule. Baku insists the region’s some 120,000 ethnic Armenians are welcome to remain as citizens of a reintegrated, pluralist Azerbaijani state. But Karabakh’s residents had endured nine months of blockade that saw grocery stores emptied of food and hospitals bereft of vital medical supplies. This immediate experience of enforced deprivation simply added to the depth of enmities between both sides and a long history of atrocities and violence.
“Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands,” David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, told Reuters. “The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world.”
No Azerbaijani official has given an order of expulsion. But many residents of the region feel they have little choice. “People right now say everyone is leaving,” Marut Vanyan, a local blogger, told Politico. “In Stepanakert [the region’s capital], there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going.”
In neighboring Armenia, the embattled government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan looked on helplessly, offering safe haven for thousands of ethnic Armenians and urging Azerbaijan to guarantee the safety of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population. “If proper conditions are not created for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to live in their homes and there are no effective protection mechanisms against ethnic cleansing, the likelihood is rising that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see exile from their homeland as the only way to save their lives and identity,” Pashinyan said Sunday.
U.S. and European officials have pressed Baku to assuage growing fears over such “ethnic cleansing.” Samantha Power, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development, arrived Monday in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, at the head of a U.S. delegation. A letter from President Bidento Pashinyan conveyed support for ongoing efforts to forge regional peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and decried the recent violence, but said little explicitly condemning Azerbaijan’s actions. David McAllister, chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Guardian on Monday that the European Union “should make it clear that any attempt to remove or coerce the Armenian population from the Nagorno-Karabakh region will have serious consequences for our relations with Azerbaijan.”
For years, Armenia counted on its close ties with Russia to act as a buffer against Azerbaijan and a safeguard of de facto independence of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. But Russian peacekeepers stood aside earlier this year as Azerbaijan choked off the key highway into Nagorno-Karabakh and did little to thwart last week’s crushing military operation. The Kremlin explicitly dislikes Pashinyan and appears to be stoking anti-government unrest against his rule.
“Since Pashinyan’s rise to power in a popular revolution in 2018 against successive authoritarian and massively corrupt regimes, Armenia has moved closer to Washington and refuses to endorse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Al-Monitor explained. “At the same time, Pashinyan is seeking normalization with Turkey in the hopes this would fend off further Azerbaijani aggression, but so far to little effect.”